Every significant creative project comes with struggles—at least mine certainly do. I’m in the midst of a large mosaic project, or, to be more accurate, I’m stalled. I only have one evening a week in the mosaic studio, and those have been rare lately. Other life circumstances have made even one day a week difficult to manage—among other things, I’ve had a book revision deadline that ate my evenings for months and road construction that doubled the time (and patience) needed to even get to the studio. Of course when I get there, glass will break in ways I don’t plan. The tiny perfect piece will fall under the bench never to be seen again. I’ll cut my fingers. The path is never smooth. And let’s not even talk about the hours (and hours and hours) I just invested in revising Creativity in the Classroom for the 6th Edition. Yet I’d never want to give up either endeavor. Writing and mosaics are both things that bring me genuine joy, but sometimes the process is not fun.
I’m not alone. Any honest biography that describes creative accomplishments is a roller coaster of creative peaks and frustrating roadblocks. There is a reason that one of the personal characteristics most associated with creativity is persistence. And yet I’m not sure we share that reality with students often enough. It can be easy to assume that the writers, inventors, and authors we study managed their accomplishments through simple strokes of creative brilliance rather than a more realistic mix of insight and determination.
Recently I came across a study from 2012 that reminded me that the issue is important. Researchers studied 271 Taiwanese high school students described as “low achieving.” They investigated the impact of three types of science curriculum: a typical content-based curriculum, a curriculum that incorporated accomplishments of three major scientists (Galileo, Newton and Einstein), a curriculum that incorporated information on the same three scientists but emphasized their challenges and struggles on the way to accomplishments. The results were impressive. While learning about scientists’ accomplishments had little impact, students in the classrooms in which they learned about scientists’ struggles not only came to understand scientists as hardworking individuals who struggled to make progress, but they also increased their interest in science, remembered key science concepts better, and improved their abilities to solve complex problems. Pretty impressive!
Whatever subject you teach, I hope you’ll consider teaching students about the struggles faced by creative individuals before them. For example, I used to show my sixth grade students a copy of the original manuscript for Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Seeing that this great writer covered his page with edits, deletions, etc. made the prospect of editing their own work seem less onerous. In those lessons I was hoping to help students become less discouraged about the need to revise, but if this research can be generalized, it may be that helping students understand the realities and struggles of creative accomplishment may help them learn more as well. Sounds like it is worth a try. I’d love to hear if you do.
Hong, H. & Lin-Siegler, X. (2012). How learning about scientists’ struggles influences students’ interest and learning in physics. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(2), 469-484.
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